By Kim Bressant-Kibwe, Esq.
Those of us who think of our pets as family members are quickly learning that one of our responsibilities is to ensure that they are cared for long after we become incapable of doing so. One way to fulfill this responsibility is to set up something called a pet trust. Here are some basic definitions and guidelines that will help you to decide whether or not a pet trust will work for you:
What is a Pet Trust?
A pet trust is a legally sanctioned arrangement that provides for the care and maintenance of one or more pets in the event of their owner’s disability or death. The person who creates the trust is commonly referred to as the ‘settlor’. The person who is entrusted with the funds is called the ‘trustee’. A trust can take effect either during a person’s lifetime or after their death. Typically, a trustee will hold property (cash, for example) “in trust” for the settlor’s pet or pets. When the time comes, the trustee will make payments on a regular basis to a designated caregiver. In some states, the trust may continue for the rest of the animal’s life or for 21 years, whichever comes first. Other states allow a pet trust to continue for the rest of the animal’s life without regard to the 21-year limitation. This is especially advantageous when planning for companion animals such as horses and parrots, who have longer life expectancies than cats and dogs.
How to Proceed?
Since there are several states in which a pet trust is not valid, and other states where enforcement is discretionary, it is advisable to set up a trust with the help of an attorney who specializes in estate planning. If a pet trust law does not exist in your state, contact your state representatives and ask why. It may be that the subject just never came up! See our Pet Trust State Law Chart for a full list of states with a pet trust law.
Why a Pet Trust?
Because most trusts are enforceable by law, pet owners will have peace of mind knowing their pets will be cared for according to their instructions. The directions left in a trust can, and should, be very specific. If your cat only likes a particular brand of food, your dog looks forward to daily romps in the park or if your pet should visit the veterinarian three times a year, you can specify this in a trust agreement. A trust that goes into effect while the pet owner is still alive can provide instructions for the care of the animals in the event that the pet owner becomes gravely sick or injured. Since pet owners know the particular habits of their animals better than anyone else, they can describe the kind of care their pets should have and provide a list of the person(s) who would be willing to provide that care.
Doing Your Homework
In order to complete a pet trust, you will be asked to provide the following information:
- the name and address of a trustee
- the name and address of a successor trustee
- the name and address of a caregiver
- the name and address of a successor caregiver
Any of your selections can be corporations and/or individuals or any combination of those two.
You will also be asked to:
- Adequately identify your pets in order to prevent fraud. Consider getting photos of your pet, microchip identifications and DNA samples. (One practical way of creating a trust is to create one for all of the pets you will have in your lifetime, rather than to create a separate trust for each pet.)
- Describe your pet’s standard of living and care in detail. That is, their nutritional needs, any health problems they have and the kind of home they are accustomed to living in.
- Require that the trustee ensures the caregiver is providingthe pet with regular, thorough veterinary check-ups (i.e. twice annually).
- Determine the amount of cash or assets needed to adequately cover the expenses for your pet’s care. Generally, this amount cannot exceed what may reasonably be required given your pet’s standard of living. You should also specify how the funds should be distributed to the caregiver.
- Determine the amount of cash or assets needed to adequately cover the expenses of administering the pet trust. This would cover fees accrued by the trustee and possible attorney consultations, for example.
- Choose a beneficiary who will receive any remaining funds that were not used by the pet trust.
- Provide directions for your pet’s burial or cremation.
Pet trusts offer pet owners a great deal of flexibility and peace of mind. In states where no pet law exists, or where a companion animal has a longer life expectancy than 21 years, other arrangements can be made in combination with, or instead of, a pet trust. Your legal advisor will be able to assist you in helping to create a workable solution.
Visit www.pettrustlawyer.com for more information on creating a pet trust.
Kim Bressant-Kibwe, Esq. is the ASPCA Trusts & Estates Counsel.